Not your typical destination
Provo, Utah, has international flavor, local history
A cook at Sweet’s Hawaiian Grill adds sesame seeds to teriyaki noodles for one of the dishes at the popular Provo eatery.
PROVO, Utah — This Utah Valley city is not your typical destination or college town; it has a long and strong affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Two of its most prominent institutions are Brigham Young University and the Provo City Center Temple, both of which are ringed by majestic peaks.
Provo was named for the French Canadian trapper Etienne Provost and was settled by Mormons in 1849. In 1875, church President Brigham Young established an academy that rose to university status at the turn of the 20th century. Nearly 90 percent of the population is made up of members of the LDS church, and many residents are current or former BYU students, a distinction that has shaped the city’s culture. For instance, Mormons do not consume alcohol, and the dearth of bars and social drinking is notable in Utah County, much of which is a mountainous area that attracts outdoorsy types with happy-hour habits. (I spotted two bars downtown and overheard one group of friends searching for wine, which they located at the Black Sheep Cafe. The caveat: They had to order food too.)
The Utah Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau’s walking tour covers more than 70 sites, including many in the Provo Downtown Historic District. Where do you start? No. 1, Provo Town Square, seems obvious, but I decided to begin with No. 71, because I am a sucker for sweets. Startup’s Candy still occupies the 1900 building that produced the country’s first filled candy and Magnolias, a forebear of the breath mint. The confectionery is open weekdays, one of the few places on the list with public access. (Most are private homes.)
Provo’s culinary scene is partially influenced by the Mormon tradition of international missionary work. Members who leave for proselytizing return to Provo with expanded palates. You can play spin the globe in the historic downtown district, stopping on pho, Belgian frites, sushi, Indian, Czech pastries, Mexican fruit pops or kronuts in a French bakery.
Homesickness has an upside: authentic Hawaiian and Polynesian food thousands of miles from its roots.
The founders of Sweet’s Hawaiian Grill are originally from Tonga (Mom, whose name is Sweet) and Samoa (Dad), and they lived in Hawaii before moving to Provo for law school. Missing the cuisine of the islands, they started serving plate lunches nearly 30 years ago.
Their kids now run the show, but the classic meal has not changed much: two scoops of rice, a choice of macaroni salad or pineapple with li hing mui seasoning and one to four proteins — including kalbi ribs, katsu fried chicken, teriyaki barbecue chicken and kalua pig.
The restaurant rotates its specials and themes, such as Saturday’s poke bowl.
Beverages dive deeply into tropical flavors. Try the Otai, a Tongan smoothie with mango, coconut milk and ice, or an infused kava drink created by BYU students. Omai Crichton, the daughter often found behind the counter, also makes leis that she sells in an adjoining space. It’s the statement piece that says, “Aloha, Provo.”
What do you get when you combine Czech and Texan culinary influences? Czech-Tex? Nope, Hruska’s Kolaches.
The Eastern European breakfast food arrived in Provo on the wings of three Texan siblings attending the university. The dough is based on a recipe from their grandmother, and the fillings are as bold and assertive as a Texan oilman.
The sweet pastry resembles a Danish in appearance but not taste; the savory variety looks like a dinner roll with a bun in the oven. The teeny bakery with the pear-themed decor (“hruska” means “pear” in Czech) opens at 6:30 a.m. By the noonish closing time, only the tags describing the 24 flavors and two specials remain.
On a weekday morning, empty trays mocked patrons for not arriving earlier. We missed out on la bomba carnitas; chocolate, peanut butter and banana nut; bacon, egg, cheese and jalapeno; and raspberry nutella, to name a few. A few maple pecan and mixed berry remained, but the kolache clock was ticking. Provo was named for the French Canadian trapper Etienne Provost and was settled by Mormons in 1849. Hog jowl tacos, left, and a glass of prickly-pear lemonade, right, at the Black Sheep Cafe.
what he knows — Native American and Southwestern dishes — and what he picked up from watching cooking shows on PBS.
Before opening Black Sheep Cafe with his two sisters, Mason lived with his family on a Navajo reservation in Arizona and the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota. (The siblings have since sold the business, but Mason still holds the headchef title.)
That formative experience turns up in such dishes as hog jowl tacos on blue corn tortillas and Navajo tacos with green chile pork or red chile beef. The green chile also shows up on the frites and in a stew.
All of the sauces and breads are made on-site, including the nanniskadi, which kicks the burger bun to the corner. The restaurant has a full bar with bottles of high- and lowalcohol beer, though who needs booze when cactus pear lemonade is in the house?
With more than 1,000 games, you could easily end up eating three square meals, plus snacks, at Good Move Cafe.
The board game restaurant,
which serves diners from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weeknights and till midnight on weekends, encourages eating while playing. If you’re stumped by all the choices, the staff is happy to recommend a dish (the Cowboy Burger, Meeples Mac and Cheese) and a game (Telestrations, Photosynthesis).
If you dribble, say, gooey cheese from the Grilled Parcheesi onto the Sorry! board, don’t fret: “That’s why we have a budget to buy new games,” said Dave Moon, who owns the place with his son, Shawn.
On Wednesday nights, the cafe holds tournaments, and you can take the Jenga Burger Challenge. Eat a stack of three burgers chosen off the menu to win a free burger for a future visit. Before opening wide, you might want to hit up the Hungry Hungry Hippos for some tips.
Bed & breakfast
The namesake of the Hines Mansion Bed & Breakfast worked in mining and real estate and as a pharmacist and saloonkeeper.
His hard work paid off,
as you will witness when you step inside the opulent Victorian manse dating to 1895. You might first notice the chandelier, a prop from “Gone With the Wind,” or smell the chocolate cookies cooling on the counter.
All nine rooms feature jet tubs, and one (the Library) has a spiral staircase that leads to a soaker with skylight views. With such dreamy names as Victorian Rose and Secret Garden, I was hardly surprised to meet around the breakfast table newlyweds and a couple celebrating their fifth anniversary.
I stayed in the Seaside Retreat, the original location of Spencer and Kitty Hines’ bathroom, but wished I had known about the Lodge room’s Butch Cassidy connection before booking. (The outlaw allegedly sneaked in through the door to evade the sheriff of Salt Lake City, whose cousin, a friend of Cassidy’s, owned the place.)
Ghost stories are up to the guests’ imagination, but whenever an electric issue arises, innkeeper Michelle Schick will say, “Kitty, knock it off.”
When the front door code didn’t work, I knew exactly who to blame.